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Authors: Diane Farr

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Oh, yes, she knew perfectly well.

The complaining tone in her mother

s voice did not escape her, either. She knew it was considered her fault that the family

s resources were limited

not that she had done anything to limit them. She was held responsible for doing nothing to
them. The fact that her betrothal to Sir James had brought ten thousand pounds into the family

s coffers three years ago had not satisfied her parents. On the contrary, it had whetted their appetite for more. And no one but
saw any unfairness in blaming her for the family

s straitened circumstances. True, everyone agreed that it was Lord Ballymere

s enthusiasm for fast horseflesh and high living that had run them into debt. But since everyone believed that
could rectify the situation, if she only
the family

s resentment was aimed squarely at her.

And, lately, she had begun to aim a little of her own resentment right back at them. This phenomenon was so unsettling that
could scarcely acknowledge it, even to herself. But her resentment was quietly growing, nevertheless.

She donned the shell pink dinner dress her mother chose, deferring, as usual, to her mother

s authority. But beneath the surface,
suffered tiny stirrings of mutiny. She said nothing, of course. She just wished


that she could have worn the ice blue.

She needed to feel herself the Frost Fair tonight. She needed to look the part. She
far too inviting in baby-soft pink. It warmed her complexion and softened all the edges she worked so hard to sharpen. The flattering hue made her look lush and winsome and approachable. Tonight she needed to look

she needed to

as remote and untouchable as the winter moon.

* * *

The drawing room at Oldham Park was cozy. Magnificent, but cozy. The effect was achieved through a wood fire that crackled at one end of it, and a diminution of the room

s gigantic proportions through judicious placement of the furniture. When Derek arrived, a footman was just lighting the last of the tapers that brightened the seating area. The duke and duchess had settled near the fire, but both rose courteously to their feet as Derek entered.

r. Whittaker, how lovely to see you again,

murmured the duchess, extending her hand with old-fashioned grace.
elcome to Oldham Park.

Derek bowed over her hand, expressed his appreciation at being allowed to come and keep his sister company, then turned to bow to the duke. The formality of the duke and duchess

s manners maintained an illusion of distance, but Derek knew that their hospitality was sincere. Malcolm

s parents cherished warm feelings for their children, and, for Malcolm and Natalie

s sake, were even prepared to extend those warm feelings to Derek.

The duke invited Derek to sit. He did so, taking a place near the duchess, and she favored him with a slight smile.
ow did you find your sister, Mr. Whittaker?

ery well, thank you, Your Grace.

His eyes twinkled.
lthough she doesn

t seem to realize it.

The duke nodded in approval.
o I think. Nothing to worry about. She has a fine, healthy glow about her.

The duchess gave a mournful little sigh.
h, poor girl. To me, she seems quite worn down. But you men know nothing of what we women suffer.

or do we wish to,

Derek agreed.
m told the child kicks so hard at night, it wakes even Malcolm.


exclaimed the duke.

ll be a true Chase. Strong and vigorous.

Derek almost winced. Natalie had told him, in despairing tones, that His Grace invariably used the masculine pronoun when referring to the babe. She dreaded handing the Chase family another disappointment. Pippa

s birth had been bad enough. Everyone adored the toddler now, but, when she had first arrived, the entire Chase family had been cast into gloom.

As if summoned by his thoughts, the drawing room door opened to admit The Honorable Philippa Chase, who ran in as fast as her short legs would carry her. Derek instantly abandoned the formality he had donned for the duke and duchess. He dropped on one knee, opened his arms, and shouted,

The child ran straight at him, squealing with delight.
nca Deck!

she crowed. He caught her, laughing, and planted a loud kiss on her plump cheek.

ave you been a good girl?



she asserted, nodding so emphatically that her dusky ringlets bounced.


s older daughter, Sarah, was never far from Pippa

s side. She entered the room with the dignity befitting an elder sister, scolding with mock exasperation.
ippa, I
you not to run. How are you, Uncle Derek?

issing my best girl. How are you, sweeting?

He scooped Pippa up in one arm and rose to give Sarah a hug with the other. Sarah considered herself too old to be petted like a baby, but Derek suspected that a girl still several months shy of her ninth birthday was young enough to need a little cosseting. She ducked her head shyly but she did hug him back, and her cheeks went pink with pleasure.

It always tickled him to see Sarah and Pippa together. There was no discernible likeness between the two half-sisters, because each favored her mother. Robust Pippa had Natalie

s dark curls and enormous brown eyes, and seemed to be born to laugh. Sarah was delicate and serious, with pale hair and paler skin, and the spectacles perched on her little nose made her look wise beyond her years. But their mutual devotion was a pleasure to witness, and spoke volumes for Natalie

s ability to link her little family with bonds of affection stronger than mere blood ties.

Malcolm and Natalie walked in behind Sarah, bringing up the rear. Natalie leaned heavily on Malcolm

s arm. She was wearing a loose gown that made her seem huge, but Malcolm handled her as gently as if she were the daintiest object in the room. He saw to Natalie

s comfort, settling her beside the duchess in the place Derek had vacated, before turning to shake hands with his brother-in-law.

ow are you, you young ruffian? Natalie tells me you rode all the way up here
ventre à terre
, you were in such a hurry to reach her. Don

t you think I know how to take care of my own wife?

Derek grinned.

t want to miss the big event. Looks to me like I arrived in the nick of time.

h, I do hope you are right,

exclaimed Natalie fervently.
t seems to take forever.

The duke coughed. The conversation was obviously growing a little too
for his austere taste.
arah, child, come you here,

he commanded, patting the stool before him.
ell your Grandpapa what you did today.

Sarah obediently left Derek

s side and went to sit with her grandfather. Derek, still holding Pippa, pulled Malcolm aside.

ve listened to Natalie all afternoon. Now I

d like to hear what you think,

he said, lowering his voice so the others could not hear.
s it true that your brother and his brood are hanging about, waiting for her to deliver the babe? Can we do anything to encourage them to leave?

Malcolm gave a short laugh.
ell, that

s frank,

he remarked.

orry! I

ve nothing against Lord Grafton

Malcolm waved this off.
know, I know. But
you’re quite right;
Arthur and his lot have no business crowding round while my poor wife is trying to deliver a child. The weight of everyone

s expectations is a bit much. I feel it myself.

is Grace referred to the babe a moment ago as


s lips pursed ruefully.
e does so on a regular basis. And the rest of the family has fallen into the same habit, I

m afraid.

say, Malcolm
Derek hesitated, then plunged ahead.
hey do think of Natalie as a Chase by now, don

t they? What I mean is

know what you mean,

Malcolm interrupted.
nd yes, they do. Her acceptance here is
contingent upon her producing a boy.

ell, that

s all right, then,

said Derek, relieved.
he thing is, you know, Natalie once feared that your family would disapprove of her. I

ve always been grateful that your parents seemed to accept her without a murmur

but I

ve wondered, and I daresay Natalie has as well, how much of that was due to


the circumstances of your marriage.

Malcolm grinned.
ou mean the fact that I never mentioned her to my family until I had already married her?

Derek grinned back.
ell, yes. Since you put it so bluntly.

Malcolm shrugged.
f my parents felt any qualms about my choice of bride, they never expressed them. Perhaps they never felt any.

he point is, dear chap, we

ll never know,

said Derek dryly.
ince you presented them with a
fait accompli.


s gaze traveled to his wife, and his expression softened.
admit, it never crossed my mind at the time. I wanted her, and I married her. I daresay I should have dragged her up here and put her through her paces beforehand

to set her own mind at ease, if nothing else. But Natalie has a natural elegance about her, an elegance of mind as well as an air of good breeding. And if that weren

t enough to win over my starchy relations, the fact that she makes me very happy

not to mention my little Sarah

was more than enough to seal the bargain. Everyone adores her, Derek, as I knew they would.

He turned back to his brother-in-law, amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes.
he knows it, herself, when she

s not suffering through the end of a pregnancy. Producing a child apparently turns a woman

s brains to mush.

o I

ve heard.

Derek cocked an eyebrow at Malcolm.
t occurs to me that if you can

t convince the others to depart, you might take Natalie somewhere else. Even the dower house

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